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Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost – June 14, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus went about the cities and the villages, from urban centers to small farming towns, and wherever he went, as he looked out at the crowds, what did he see? He saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd.
The Bible frequently describes human beings as being like sheep. It is not a compliment. Sheep are notoriously foolish creatures. They are known to wander and get themselves lost. They are stubborn, always wanting to go their own way regardless of what is good for them. They are also extremely vulnerable creatures – especially when they are without a shepherd.
And so when Jesus looks at the crowds as he visits both the cities and the villages, he sees that the people are “harassed and helpless.” That’s a good way to describe sheep without a shepherd. They are set upon by predatory and destructive forces. They are without hope. They are harassed and helpless.
These are decent translations of the Greek adjectives here. They have the alliteration, which I always appreciate. But these adjectives can be translated in other ways to bring out the shades of meaning these powerful words are trying to convey. When Jesus looks at the people, he sees that they are threatened and bewildered. They are hurting and afraid. They are mangled and lost. This is what Jesus sees when he looks out at the people in the cities and the villages: that they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
If the Lord Jesus was to do a tour of our world, or our country, or our state, or even our island today, would he see anything different? If Jesus appeared in the flesh today for a tour of our cities and villages would his assessment of the human condition change? Have we made much progress in the past 2,000 years? Are things so different?
How can we possibly say that anything has changed? When we ourselves look out at our world, as we look out at our cities and villages, how can we not see that people are still very much harassed and helpless? How can we not see that they are set upon by destructive forces and often without hope? A tiny virus has upended our society. Racial tensions are higher than they have been in decades. The economy is in shambles, especially for those in the lower income brackets who are least able to weather the downturn. Our cities are in flames. Fatal drug overdoses and suicides are off the charts. Alcohol and marijuana use are way, way up. Keep those dispensaries open – gotta keep the sheep numb. People are spiritually lost, having wandered from God to stubbornly do their own thing.
Don’t think that we aren’t counted among those sheep. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah – and his words are as true today as they have ever been. We have all wandered. We have all stubbornly wanted to go our own way. And what has it gotten us? Can you honestly say that you haven’t felt harassed and helpless, hurt and afraid, bewildered and set upon and maybe even a bit mangled?
When our Lord Jesus looks out at our present world, when he looks at our cities and our towns, when he looks at our lives, does he not see the very same thing he saw in our gospel reading for today?
But what does Jesus do about it? Does he throw up his hands in despair? Does he say, “Ah, the hell with it!” Does he head for a cabin in the woods? That’s what I’m tempted to do sometimes!
But that’s not what Jesus does. No, not our Lord Jesus. Jesus looks out at the people, he sees that they are harassed and helpless, he sees that they are like sheep without a shepherd, and he has compassion on them. The very Son of God, the incarnate Creator of the Universe, looks upon his broken world, and he feels for it from the depths of his divine being with an aching love. He looks upon his foolish creatures and he cares for them. Jesus has come so that he might give them the very Shepherd that they need. And so he went about announcing that in him the kingdom of heaven had come near. He went about healing as a sign of this kingdom’s arrival.
Jesus didn’t just see a bunch of sheep without a shepherd. He saw an opportunity. Here the metaphor changes from shepherding to farming. As Jesus looks out at the people he also sees a ripe crop out in the fields, just waiting to be harvested. He sees rows and rows of corn or wheat that are ready to be gathered into this kingdom he is bringing!
Jesus needs laborers to gather in this crop, and so he calls his twelve disciples. They are a motley crew, these guys. You have some brothers in there. Some fishermen. Interestingly, you have Simon the Cananean, a member of a Jewish nationalist group committed to overthrowing the Romans, and you have Matthew, who was collaborating with those same Romans, working as a tax collector. These represent polar opposites on the political spectrum of Jesus’ time. Can you imagine Republicans and Democrats finding common cause like this today? Can you imagine Jay Inslee and Donald Trump collaborating without constantly sniping at one another? Can you imagine populists and globalists, conservatives and liberals working together? Well, Jesus can! He puts Simon the Jewish nationalist and Matthew the Roman collaborator together on the same team!
And he did so because what he was up to would transcend all their earthly squabbles. Jesus was coming to bring salvation and healing and forgiveness and mercy to a world that was badly broken. He was coming to restore health and hope to a people who were harassed and helpless. He was coming to be the Shepherd that these wandering, stubborn, and hopeless sheep so badly needed, a shepherd who would ultimately lay down his life for the sheep, so that they would have forgiveness and eternal life with him.
When Jesus looks at our cities and villages today, he sees the same thing we do. He sees a bunch of people who are like sheep without a shepherd. When he looks at our lives, he sees the mangled mess that comes from our wandering and our stubbornness.
But he continues to have compassion on all of us. He continues to feel for us from the depths of his being, aching for us in love. But he doesn’t just have the feels for us. He has done something about it. He has laid down his life for us. He has come to take our sin upon himself and raise us to new life in him. He comes to us today in the power of his Word to be our shepherd, to guide us, to protect us, to save us.
And then, switching metaphors, calls us to do some farming with him. He sends us out as laborers in a harvest that is ripe indeed. He sends us out to bring healing and hope to a hurting world. He sends us out to gather people in by proclaiming the good news that in him, the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church